Economic victim blaming

Yesterday I heard a story about an acquaintance of an acquaintance who got stuck with an enormous medical bill for her child because a provider had turned out, after the fact, to be out-of-network for her insurance. I believe it was one of those situations where a hospital took the insurance but providers within the hospital didn’t, or vice versa. Anyway, this mother was so embarrassed that she secretly took out a loan instead of asking for advice from people around her (who could have advised her to get a payment plan with the hospital, etc).

To me, the most interesting part of this story is that the woman was embarrassed. Why on earth should she be embarrassed? The insurance company should be embarrassed. Our government should be embarrassed. All of us voters should be embarrassed for allowing such an idiotic system to persist. Pretty much everyone should be embarrassed except this woman who was guilty only of seeking medical care for her child in an opaquely bureaucratic system.

I was in a similar situation when Monkey was around six months old, and I can tell you that I did not feel embarrassed at all. What I felt was panic and unadulterated outrage. The question this raises in my mind, then, is why – when faced with the same situation in which they are not at fault – do some people blame themselves and feel embarrassed, while others blame the system and feel outraged?

I don’t have an answer, but I can think of some parallel situations. For example, food stamps. Most families that receive food stamps have at least one working adult. Usually they are working at least full time. If the adult is not working, they are probably either pregnant or disabled. My family has received food stamps in varying amounts (as well as WIC) despite my husband (who’s a veteran) working full time in what pretty much everyone would consider a respectable white-collar job. I could blame myself for this because instead of working to bring in an income, I spend my days calling doctor’s offices and case managers and DME companies, taking our son to therapy and medical appointments, feeding him, medicating him, entertaining him, and generally keeping him alive; as well as cooking, cleaning, laundry, folding cloth diapers, designing and making knitted clothing, writing, and political activism. None of these activities are (currently) paid, therefore they have no value, I have no social status, and our inability to buy enough food without help from the government is my fault. Right?

Except, here’s another way to look at it. In a society that was structured differently in any number of ways, our need for supplemental food money would not exist. Maybe my husband’s full-time white-collar job would produce enough income to feed a family of three. Or maybe I would be working part-time while my son played in a free/low-cost cooperative childcare with a trained nurse on staff. Or maybe I would be compensated for the work that I do in the home. Or maybe we would have a barter system with local farmers. Or maybe … or maybe …

But most people in this situation don’t do this kind of thinking. They don’t think about how society could be. Instead they listen to the voice of the society in place, which says, “You have no value. You are a drain and a burden on taxpayers. You should be ashamed of yourself.” And they do feel ashamed.

It’s hard not to listen to these voices. I can’t say they don’t affect me or that I never feel guilty or embarrassed. But intellectually, I protest these feelings, because I believe the situation my family and so many families are in is bigger than me. My personal failings did not create this situation, nor did these other people’s personal failings create it. My feelings of guilt are not useful to anyone – except for the establishment that benefits from unbridled capitalism. On the other hand, if I protest, if I challenge the establishment, that might actually be useful to someone.

In past societies and in some current ones, a woman who was sexually abused or raped was considered to be at fault. She was encouraged to feel ashamed, and she did. She might kill herself in order to regain societal approval, or her family might kill her to rid themselves of the shame of her failure. Or she might be hidden away in a Magdelene laundry, a fallen woman. In America today, thanks to decades of feminist critique and activism, women are able to look at this situation and say “NO. This is not the woman’s fault. The person who abused or raped her is at fault. He is the one who should be held accountable. He is the one who should be ashamed.” Even though a woman who’s been assaulted may feel shame, intellectually she can recognize that she is not at fault, and there is a chorus of voices within the society that agrees with her and encourages her to seek justice.

I hope that we can move towards a vision of social and economic realities that doesn’t blame the victims, but encourages them to change the systems that victimize them. I hope we can recognize that full-time caregiving, or working minimum wage jobs, are not personal failings. I hope we can close our ears to the voices that tell us to be ashamed and raise our voices in a constructive critique. I hope we can imagine new possibilities, new structures, new values.

I believe in personal responsibility. I also believe in social responsibility. Outrage directed at social systems that victimize people is not an abdication of responsibility. In fact, if we do not protest these systems, we become complicit in them.


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